EU facing foreign policy choices


Two of the biggest current issues in world politics are China's emergence as a major political and economic actor, and Iran's efforts to develop nuclear energy, which could give it the capacity to create nuclear weapons from its enrichment programme.

Both of them involve complex multilateral negotiations on the terms by which these changing realities are managed. Last week the European Union, another emerging force in world politics, insisted at its summit meeting in Brussels that it is still determined to lift the EU arms embargo imposed on China after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. Another round of talks between EU states and Iran last week sought to provide economic and security guarantees which would persuade that state to abandon any attempt to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States has been deeply involved in both issues. It is a measure of their importance that, implicitly or explicitly, there may now be a trade-off between them whereby the US endorses progress towards an agreement with Iran and the EU delays lifting its arms embargo against China unless or until much more stringent conditions are attached to it. The talks with Iran registered progress last week, bolstered by a growing realisation that the US undertakings to support economic incentives for Iranian co-operation could make a real difference in delivering them. If that is so, credible US security guarantees could follow. This would represent a substantial breakthrough for the EU strategy of conditional engagement with Iran. If successful it would have positive consequences for the rest of the Middle East.

Lifting the arms sales ban on China has been on the EU agenda for the last couple of years, coinciding with hugely increased trade and investment which has made the EU China's largest economic partner in the world this year. France, Germany and Britain have supported lifting the ban, although other EU states (but not, regrettably, Ireland) have expressed reservations about continuing human rights violations and sharply increased Chinese arms expenditures. The move has come up against more and more US pressure not to proceed.

And a critical new factor has now been introduced following the passing of an anti-secession law at the Chinese National People's Congress earlier this month.

It is directed against Taiwan, where pro-independence sentiment has been growing, despite the continuing care of its leaders not to provoke China unnecessarily. The huge demonstration against the law in Taipei this weekend is a measure of how angry people there feel over being made the objects of a new military nationalism on the mainland, taking the place of communist ideology as a social glue to hold the vast state together. Members of the US Congress are furious over EU plans to lift the arms embargo. It could lead to greater tension across the Taiwan Straits, pitting US weapons potentially against EU ones. These new facts argue for greater care about lifting the ban until such safeguards are in place.